According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18.5 percent of U.S. children are affected by obesity and are at risk for poor health. What’s more, many schools have a limited budget to spend on lunch, which can affect the quality and nutrition of the food, not to mention academic performance.

For the past several years, Chef Charleen Badman of FnB Restaurant in Scottsdale has worked through an organization of chefs, restaurateurs, farmers and community food advocates to educate youth about food, with the goal of encouraging lifelong healthy eating habits.

The organization, called Blue Watermelon Project, focuses on three main goals: helping future generations diversify the types of foods and flavors they consume, encouraging schools to serve fresh and healthy food to students and preparing students and families for academic and social success.

“The name Blue Watermelon was made up after explaining to my best friend’s husband what we were trying to accomplish as a group. Watermelon being a food and something children usually enjoy and Blue Watermelon, which is something never seen before and unusual,” Badman said.

“We go into classrooms to teach kids about the importance of nutritious food and where it comes from. We also raise money to help schools and school districts rethink relationships with food,” says Badman. “My inspiration for the program comes from the last 10 years working with Ann and Lou Rodarte and their Chef in the Garden Program at Echo Canyon.”

Echo Canyon School’s Chef in the Garden Program invites local chefs to share their knowledge by hosting an interactive cooking demonstration with students.

During Badman’s first class, the students crafted meatballs and panna cotta infused with lemon verbena. Although she wasn’t sure what the response would be on some of the unfamiliar ingredients, she was met with all positives.

Through the non-profit Blue Watermelon Project, Badman has taken this concept a step further and teamed up with culinary leaders to incorporate taste education and culinary techniques into K-12 curriculum.

Families are also given resources to create nutritious recipes at home, with the hope that the students will develop healthy habits. All funds raised for Blue Watermelon Project go back into the program and fully support their non-profit efforts.

Badman is a culinary industry veteran with more than 30 years under her belt. She’s spent nearly 10 of those years refining her craft at FnB Restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale with co-owner Pavle Milic.

Including this year, Badman has been a James Beard Award semifinalist five times in a row. This year, Badman’s community efforts and acclaimed culinary skills were enough to finally win the James Beard Award as 2019 Best Chef in the Southwest.

The Southwest award region includes Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. To be considered for the accolade, her colleagues, previous winners, journalists and others had to nominate her.

FnB Restaurant features an ever-changing veggie-forward menu that places an emphasis on locally-sourced ingredients and curated wine pairings.

For more on the Blue Watermelon Project: